Olga Rodriguez and her two boys were among the hundreds who went Monday to Riverbank Park in West Harlem to get free food, health coverage, and other kinds of assistance, having heard of the MetroPlus insurance company-sponsored event from her pastor. She and many others there are migrants who arrived in New York City months ago and are now trying to find their footing.
The Colombian has been in the city since July, arriving around the time Mayor Eric Adams first acknowledged an uptick in asylum seekers coming to New York. Since then, she said she’s felt “atada” — which roughly translates to feeling powerless.
Rodriguez lives in an emergency shelter in the Bronx with her children but hasn’t secured stable housing. She’s been unable to find work, given that her kids can’t be left alone at the shelter. And she needs money for a lawyer to assist her with her asylum case, but because she has no work, she has no income.
New York continues to experience a wave of asylum seekers, many of whom arrive in the city without a place to stay. But migrants are struggling to leave shelters, with several key housing programs unavailable to them because of their immigration status. Many also don’t have access to free legal services to help them manage their asylum cases in federal immigration court, as they apply to be granted permanent stay in the United States.
While migrants often say their long journey to the United States has been worthwhile, many also say that adapting to the city has been an uphill battle.
“I ask myself, ‘did I do the right thing coming here? Or did I make a mistake?’” Rodriguez, who worked as a nurse in Colombia but fled her country due to domestic violence, said in Spanish. “People say, ‘all those who come here as immigrants suffer, we all suffer, and time has to pass, a year, six months, until you see results. Don’t ask for the impossible.’ And that makes me breathe again. But I do get depressed sometimes.”
Albany Action Needed?
Over 11,800 of the more than 15,500 asylum-seekers who have entered city shelters remain there, as of Sept. 28, according to numbers provided by the mayor’s office. The city has responded by activating 39 emergency shelters, and is in the process of constructing an emergency temporary tent shelter for asylum-seekers in the Orchard Beach parking lot in The Bronx.
On Sept. 18, a Colombian mother of two who had been living since springtime in a city shelter in Hollis, Queens committed suicide. This drew attention to the plight of migrants stuck in city shelters without a path out. She had been separated from her husband at the border, who unsuccessfully tried three times to cross. She had struggled to find work, and she and her sons had to ration their food, Documented reported.
“The tragic suicide of an asylum-seeker in city shelter earlier this month illustrates the consequences of lack of resources,” said City Councilmember Shahana Hanif, who chairs the Committee on Immigration, during an oversight hearing Friday on asylum-seekers.
At the hearing, Molly Park, first deputy commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, highlighted one huge obstacle to securing housing: City vouchers are not available to new immigrants. Park said the matter is out of the city’s hands, and that expanding the program to asylum-seekers would need Albany’s action.
“We are not legally allowed to provide CityFHEPS to those who are undocumented,” said Park, referring to a city rental assistance supplement. “In most cases in order to be able to pay ongoing rental assistance, even using city tax levy dollars, it requires state legislation.”
Park also said the administration was contemplating a change to the policy requiring families to have lived in a city shelter for 90 days before qualifying for a voucher, which could help if the vouchers did become available to new immigrants.
During this past fiscal year, which ran through the end of June, 5,235 single adults and 4,118 families who received subsidies exited the shelter system for permanent housing, according to the mayor’s latest management report. Only 1,800 single adults and 1,089 families in the general shelter population managed to exit without subsidies.
Joshua Goldfein, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, told THE CITY he disagreed with Park’s claim that the state would have to approve legislation to allow CityFHEPS to go to migrants. He said City Council could pass a bill requiring the Adams administration to expand CityFHEPs to migrants, or the administration could do it independently.
“If they would expand eligibility for those programs, beyond the very narrow limits of who is eligible for them right now, more people could move out of shelter,” Goldfein said. “That would also free up more shelter units that the city could use to house migrants so they wouldn’t have to open so many new shelters.”
Asked about Park’s claim that state approval is needed, Goldfein told THE CITY: “We strongly disagree.”
One family staying at Park West Hotel for three weeks said they haven’t received help from their social worker to move to more stable housing. The mother and father, who live with their 10-year-old and asked not to be named for fear of retribution from hotel management, said they share one bed among the three of them and don’t receive much other than cold food they have to microwave.
Additionally, the family cannot leave their child without supervision at the hotel when he’s not in school. When interviewed, the father was heading to his job at a hotel in Queens, but the mother had not yet left for her job at a fast food restaurant. Instead, she was waiting to see if another migrant at the hotel would take care of her son.
“If they take me out of this hotel and to another place where there’s a kitchen so I can give my son an adequate meal, I’ll be happy,” the mother said. “I don’t care about the circumstances, even if it’s sleeping on the floor. But at least I could give my son a hot meal.”
Reibeth Sanchez, a Venezuelan who arrived in the city two months ago, volunteered at Monday’s event. In his time here, Sanchez has obtained the city’s municipal identification card, IDNYC, and health insurance, and is now waiting for his Social Security card.
His advice to others who want to make it in New York: “It’s not easy but it’s not impossible. But if they have a desire to come, they should come,” Sanchez said in Spanish.
He found a construction job a month after moving to the city, after obtaining the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification needed to work in construction in the city. He’s living at a men’s shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he shares a room with four others. The 27-year-old hopes to move to stable housing but said work isn’t steady and is scared of losing his shelter bed.
But what Sanchez said he needs most help with is an attorney to help him manage his asylum case.
Camille Mackler, executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (ARC), said nonprofits that often help asylum seekers with their legal cases are overwhelmed right now, with cases postponed during the pandemic.
“They don’t have the ability to hire a private attorney. They’re literally arriving here with nothing but the clothes on their back,” she said. “And so they need to rely on nonprofits, and nonprofits are just completely at capacity at this point.”
Immigrant ARC has signed on to New York Immigrant Coalition’s Welcoming New York campaign, which is requesting the city and the state each provide $10 million to help asylum seekers with legal services, among other things.
Legal to Work
For migrants, filing for asylum doesn’t just set them up for a legal stay in the U.S. — it also puts them on a path to work legally in the country.
Mackler said that courts can take as much as three to four months to file each migrant’s case. Once 180 days have passed post-filing, migrants can apply for work permits.
And with the current backlogs in asylum cases, it could take about another year to adjudicate a case.
The need to get asylum seekers work permits is so pressing that Mayor Adams and other elected officials are urging the federal government to pass an emergency measure to speed up work authorization. The city also issued a $5 million solicitation for legal providers to help asylum-seekers with their cases. Manuel Castro, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said during Friday’s Council hearing that while the arduous asylum process could stretch years, the goal is to at least help applicants obtain work permits.
“The reality is, it’s probably going to take perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to be able to provide full legal representation to all the asylum-seekers that have arrived and will continue to arrive and immigrant communities who were already in New York,” Castro said. “The problem is that the federal government doesn’t provide legal representation for immigrants arriving in the country, leaving it to the individuals to figure out legal representation.”
Venezuelans Erickson Guedez and Argelia Gimenez are also staying at the Park West Hotel with their 15- and 8-year-old daughters, where they’ve been for the past month. Guedez said he’s grateful for the help he and his family have received from the city and other groups, saying that his daughters are delighted with school.
Guedez, who arrived in New York a month-and-a-half ago, ahead of the rest of his family, said that apart from a couple of painting jobs, he hasn’t found steady work. But he said he’s hopeful that as he goes through the asylum proceedings, he’ll soon be able to work legally in the country, and has an appointment with a nonprofit for legal help scheduled for Monday.
“What we most need is to work and to have a permit that will allow us to work in peace,” Guedez said in Spanish. “Once we do everything to be legalized, I know everything will go well.”